Let’s Talk About The Supreme Court

Sunde White illustrates her essay describing the Supreme Court

What Is The Supreme Court?

Established by the US Constitution in 1790, it is the highest court in the United States.  It is the top court in the Judicial Branch of the US government.  There are presently 9 judges on this court and they make their judgments based on the majority decision.  The decisions of this court are the final say on the country’s laws based on how they interpret the Constitution. The Supreme Court Justices serve a life term.

What is the Constitution?

Written in 1787, it is the document that established the laws of the United States.  It describes the framework of the US government, how power will be divided into three branches and it declares what absolute rights US citizens are born with. The men that wrote the Constitution are called the Forefathers.

What are the three branches of government?

The three branches of government exist because the forefathers wanted to distribute government power, providing a check and balance system so that no one branch could become too powerful and no one person could become a king, queen or dictator.  The branches are the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch and the Judicial Branch.  The Executive Branch is the President.  She can sign bills into laws, sign executive orders, is the head of the military and is in charge of maintaining relationships with other countries.  The Legislative branch, which is also called the Congress, is made up of two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate.  These are not separate Branches of Government, they both belong to the Legislative Branch.  Both can write bills but the House of Reps is responsible for the purse strings, oversight and declarations of war.  The Senate is responsible for confirming presidential nominees, ratifying treaties and passing bills into law. Both chambers must vote on and pass a bill before it can be signed into law by the president.  The Judicial Branch is our Federal court system.  The top court is the Supreme Court.  Decisions of the lower courts can make their way up for a final decision in the Supreme Court.

How are the Supreme Court Justices selected?

When there is a vacancy, the president will nominate someone and the Senate will hold a hearing to vote on whether that person should be confirmed.  The president usually selects a judge from a lower federal court but there is no requirement that the nominee must be a judge.  The head of the Senate can refuse to hold a confirmation hearing which would mean the nominee will never get a chance to be a Supreme Court Justice.  This happened to Obama’s nominee in 2016 when Mitch McConnell refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland thus denying Obama a second opportunity to appoint a Justice.

How does a case get to the Supreme Court?

Once a case has been decided in a lower federal court, it can be appealed to the Supreme Court for a final decision.  The Supreme Court only accepts about 100 cases a year out of about 10,000 petitions.  If the Supreme Court refuses a case then the lower court’s decision will stand.

Will there always be 9 judges on the Supreme Court?

Not necessarily, the number of Supreme Court Justices are not addressed in the Constitution.  Originally there were 6 judges and then it was increased to 9.  There are two ways to expand the court.  An amendment could be added to the constitution but that would take a 2/3rds approval of the House of Reps and the Senate and ¾ of the states would have to agree to it.  The second way is to pass an expansion bill requiring only a simple majority.  A simple majority is a majority in the House of Reps and approval of 60 Senators.  This bill would be passed on to the president to sign into law.

Can the Supreme Court overturn laws?

Yep!  They are the final say on Federal laws.  If they declare a law to be unconstitutional they will overturn it and it will cease to exist.

Can a Justice be removed?

Yes, but it has never happened although one judge was impeached by Congress but the Senate did not vote to remove.  A judge can be removed for voting in a partisan manner or accepting bribes or being generally corrupt.

What do we do if the Supreme Court is drunk on its own power and making nonsensical decisions willy nilly???

Vote!  I know it’s so boring and slow motion but you must vote in every election so that you can either get to 60 Senators that will vote to expand the court with a president that will sign it into law or, much more unlikely, you can get enough votes to change the Constitution.

The other option to help with regaining rights of citizens is to pay very close attention to your local elections.  That means learn about and vote for your State legislators and governor.  They are the ones that create state laws.  The Supreme Court often allows for issues to be decided by each individual state.  They call this “state’s rights”.  So whatever is the law in your state will remain with no interference from the Supreme Court.  So even if you don’t like a Supreme Court decision, if you have voted in a good state government, the laws you care about will stay intact.

OR, you could totally run for office!  Democracy needs a wide variety of citizens to actively participate in the government.  It would be amazing if you were one of them.